A graduate student at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) is doing research on the detection of biological warfare agents for Sandia National Laboratories, the government lab that develops technologies to protect national security.
Dawn Bennett, of Burlington, is part of a Sandia research team developing smart biological sensors that could soon detect lethal biological agents such as anthrax and smallpox spores. Bennett, who has an internship at Sandia, is doing her doctoral thesis in mechanical engineering on smart sensors. She works on micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) for the lab’s Microsystems Engineering and Applied Science Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
“Since the attack on America on September 11, 2001, the war with Iraq, and the growing concern over the use of biological warfare agents, the development of smart biological sensors becomes paramount for maintaining security, health, and peace among nations around the world,” Bennett says.
Biological weapons are the most lethal form of mass destruction, she adds, having the potential to kill more people than nuclear or chemical attacks. Biological aerosols are difficult to detect since they are usually invisible, lacking both odor and taste. The threat of biological weapons has also increased due to recent advances in molecular biology and genetic engineering. “Early detection of biological agents is thus crucial to America’s homeland security,” says Bennett.
Bennett co-advisers are Boris Khusid, Ph.D., associate professor of mechanical engineering at NJIT, and Paul Galambos, Ph.D., senior member of technical staff at Sandia National Laboratories.
At Sandia, Bennett uses Sandia’s SwIFT ™ (SUMMiT V ™ with Integrated Fluid Technologies) process to design MEMS devices that can separate and concentrate biological particles. At 40 microns in width, the devices Bennett researches are tiny. In comparison, a typical human hair is 100 microns in diameter. The devices contain electrodes to which alternating voltages and varying frequencies are applied. This allows for efficient concentration of particles in water through a process known as dielectrophoresis.
Bennett says her next task is to develop smart biological sensors that could be placed in buildings or other public places. She looks forward to advances that will result in devices that not only signal a biohazard alert but also automatically identify specific agents.
Bennett has worked previously as a project and manufacturing engineer for General Motors; Rockwell; Delphi-Delco Electronics; and Allied Signal Corporations, and has also taught as a volunteer teacher in Kenya, East Africa. She is looking forward to defending her doctoral thesis this fall and will continue her research in microfluidics and electro-hydrodynamics.